Prolific bassist talks Lyle Lovett gig, advice for learning “hard parts” on the bass
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
October 18, 2021
Viktor Krauss is certainly a musician with a lot of different sides to his work. Brother to vocalist and fiddler Alison Krauss, he’s probably most recognizable for being the longtime bass player with Lyle Lovett’s band. But over the years, he’s enjoyed a wide-ranging career that’s seen him working with artists as varied as James Taylor, Carly Simon, Chet Atkins, Elvis Costello, Dolly Parton, Harry Connick Jr., Tom Jones, Joan Baez, Robert Plant, Bill Frisell, The Chieftains, John Fogerty, and the Indigo Girls. Krauss has also composed film scores for movies directed by Ken Burns and Robert Altman, and had his music appear on “bumpers” between shows on National Public Radio. He’s released three solo recordings, as well as Vignette, a 2017 collaboration with harpist Maeve Gilchrist.
FBPO: You started on piano and trumpet. How did you discover the bass?
VK: I remember the day pretty vividly. I was attending a middle school concert that my sister was involved with, playing violin, and I saw one lone upright bass in a sea of violins and some cellos and violas. It was just very striking, visually. Then when he started to play and you hear this low end kind of show up out of nowhere, it was just intriguing. I immediately took to it and wanted to see if I could take lessons at the middle school. It just kind of went from there.
FBPO: So you started with classical technique, and the bow? Simandl maybe?
VK: Actually, Simandl came later, but yeah, it was classical. And then, on occasion, I would accompany my sister and my mom at contest fiddling competitions, where it was just kind of playing by ear. I had a fantastic jazz teacher and I started taking from lessons from her about two years after I started. Karen Korsmeyer was her name. She was a University of Illinois student. I still have a cassette that she gave me, kind of a mix tape of famous bassists like Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers. I just loved that tape. And she’d have transcriptions of the heads on all those, or the lead sheet. I would learn those heads, and then learn how to walk, and eventually solo.
FBPO: At what point did you pick up the electric bass?
VK: Well, electric was about a year after I started playing upright bass. I was interested in it, but I generally get more calls for the upright.
FBPO: Who were your bass influences?
VK: It’s funny. I think I gravitated more toward bass performances and parts versus a particular player, but I loved Ray Brown. When I was really getting into jazz, it was the Oscar Peterson Night Train record. I just loved everything he did on that. Just the sound that he generated from the instrument. The intonation was wonderful. I just felt like, “Okay, this is kind of the prototype, a textbook definition of what that instrument should sound like in that genre.” As for electric bass, I was and I still think of myself as a rock and roll guy most of the time, sort like John Paul Jones and Leland Sklar. I would get fascinated with particular bass parts and how they would lend themself to the song or how they’re really a composition of the song. I don’t know if I had a bunch of bass heroes. I just kind of liked listening to a lot of stuff and I’d end up paying attention to the low end.
FBPO: There’s certainly a lot of music in your family. Was it a given that you were going to pursue a career as a professional musician?
VK: Not always. And it’s funny. It was a heck of a decision for me. It’s got its ups and downs and feeling like, “Oh gosh, how much do I really love this?” because it’s your passion. It’s your love. It’s your hobby. It’s everything. But it also becomes your job. And when it doesn’t feel like it’s all going well, it starts to hurt in other places. I guess when I switched to finance when I was at college, with second thoughts of doing other stuff at the same time, it just kind of worked out. I still love playing music and listening to music. I don’t know if it was a given. Our parents certainly didn’t force us to do anything. It’s just kind of what we ended up really liking.
FBPO: When you moved to Nashville, did you know anyone there, or did you just show up determined to make it?
VK: I knew a handful of people. I knew the people in my sister’s group. There was a composition professor that I had at U of I, Paul Zonn, who is Andrea Zonn’s dad. She’s a great violinist and singer. She’s been with James Taylor for a couple of decades now. But Paul was one of the people that was saying, “Well, if you do this, it will probably work out.” And so I just started coming down here and started to get a little bit of work. I was probably in a lot of the right places at the right time, and people that knew me recommended me and felt confident that I would do an okay job if they had me.
FBPO: I think you’re being humble and modest when you say, “right place, right time.”
VK: Oh well, thanks for saying that. Rich Adler, who’s an engineer/producer here, had said when I first moved down here, “It really takes about two years for you to start, if you’re professional and doing all the right stuff, just for you to start generating new contacts that are outside of the people that you first knew when you moved there.” And I think that was pretty accurate. There was a pool of people that I would play with and take gigs. Actually, being around my sister was kind of nice because I went to a lot of events that she did and I made it known that I wanted to play with people.
FBPO: Was Alison already living there at the time?
VK: Yeah, yeah. She’d lived here for, I think about two or three years, at that point, so I just made myself accessible. I think I was 22, 23. No wife or kids or anything like that, so I was out there and playing in as many things as I possibly could.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?
VK: Primarily session work, since there’s not been a huge amount of touring. My main gig for years and years has been with Lyle Lovett. We haven’t done anything in almost two years because of the pandemic. There’s talk about doing some stuff next year, if everything kind of clears up. And there are plans for me to do the upcoming sequel to the “Raise the Roof” tour, the Alison and Robert Plant tour. And we built a studio here, right off the back of our house, that I work in as a producer a lot of the time, so I do quite a bit of stuff there, just trying to play on as many things as is possible. I played on a Paula Cole record, which was really fun, a couple months back. I did a one-off show in Austin with Keith Carlock, Mike Stern and Bill Evans, which was really fun. I ended up playing electric on that show, which was really unexpected. It really did make more sense for electric, but it was a little bit of a curveball. It was nice to use that part of my brain.
FBPO: Tell me about your gear.
VK: I’ve used two upright basses pretty much my entire time playing. My main recording instrument is a Juzek bass from the late ‘40s. This one has a really nice defined midrange that just records beautifully. My live instrument is actually the more valuable of the two. It’s supposedly, it could be a Marchetti Italian instrument from like the 1800s, and it’s a 7/8 scale one. It’s actually the one that I learned on. It doesn’t record quite as well as the Juzek, but it’s got a friendlier neck and I can be a little more agile on it. I just ended up liking it live more.
FBPO: I’m guessing you have pickups on those basses?
VK: Yes. For the recorded sound and for the front of house sound, I use the old Fishman BP-100, their first design, the one that goes right on the edge of the bridges. I run that through a Demeter vacuum tube DI. That pickup is notoriously unforgiving, being kind of nasal, but it’s got great high end and midrange that are really easy to shape. It’s not a particularly natural sound, but in conjunction with a microphone or a live setting, I like it the most just because it’s got really great definition. Then I use an old Underwood pickup that sits in the bridge in conjunction with a Biesele magnetic pickup. They all kind of do different things. With the Biesele, you can get it to sound exactly like a fretless electric bass, if you want.
FBPO: What about electric bass?
VK: I have a late 1961 Jazz bass that I got about 15 years ago that I use almost on 90% of everything I do. It makes me feel like I’m a better player There’s something about it where you’re not fighting the instrument, or dealing with an idiosyncrasy of a certain area. It’s just kind of perfect everywhere. It’s one of those magical ones.
FBPO: What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn to play bass?
VK: I think having an instrument that does favors for you and sounds good and plays easily and is set up well, new strings and all that kind of stuff. To have something with a rewarding to sound to begin with, so you’re not fighting it. I think that’s really important. If you’re just learning and trying to see if you want to go farther with it, you don’t have to spend a ton of money, necessarily, and buy the most expensive thing out there. It’s more important to have something that’s set up really well, with good strings. Start there and focus on finding a balance between stuff that you like to listen to and stuff that you want to pursue to be able to learn. You know, “Oh, I’d love to learn how to play the ‘Good Times Bad Times,’” or whatever. Maybe pursue that, but also know all the fundamentals and, as much as you can, make it fun.
FBPO: Any thoughts on how to go about learning specific bass parts?
VK: When you listen to things, chances are, they’re easier than they seem. I think in looking at music and figuring out a part, there’s always an easier way than it than it appears to sound. There’s always a fingering somewhere in there that makes you say, “Oh, okay. That’s the way they did it.” That’s why it sounds natural to go to that spot because most people don’t want to write hard stuff. They want to write something that sounds good, and is easy in your hand. Then, once you figure it out, you go, “Oh, okay. That’s why that works. That’s why the pull-off here, or this is an open G versus a [fretted] G.”
FBPO: What about the future? What lies ahead for you as far as you can see?
VK: Oh gosh, I don’t know. Hopefully, more work. You always think, “Oh gosh, this is the last thing anyone’s going to call for you.” And that never goes away. But you hope people think that you’re still doing a good job and that you’re going to offer something that’s beneficial to whatever they’re doing or that you’re going to make whatever they want to do sound better. That’s always my goal. It sounds like in ’22, there’s going to be a lot of touring coming up, so that’s really fun, being able to play in front of people again.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
VK: It probably would’ve been in some kind of business. My dad’s business was real estate, and I always kind of liked that too, I probably would’ve been a numbers guy or in accounting. I like architecture as well, so it could have been one of those things.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.